Exemplary Short Story Showing – don’t Tell.

Katherine Anne Porter.jpg

Katherine Anne Porter 1890 – 1980

This is a short excerpt from one of our workshops.

Spoiler Alert

If you have not read Theft by Catherine Anne Porter, do so now . . . or just read the executive summary below . . .

Theft by Catherine Anne Porter is interesting for three reasons: It shows us character development rather than telling us, the narrator has no name thus becoming every man with a universal theme that affects us all, and because it is so much more than the handbag that has been stolen.

The story begins with the narrator coming out of the bathroom and remembering that she definitely still had the handbag when she came in last night, though she had been somewhat the worse for wear. The story then recounts a few incidents which reveal that she has almost no money and that love seems to have passed her by. Then there is an almost throw away reference to the handbag. The narrator is complimented on it the night before when she opens it to pay a small part of the taxi fare as she makes her way home.

All she says is,

‘It’s a birthday present…and I like it.’

We now know it is important to her, that she has very little money in it, but do not know anything else, except a couple of pages later we find that the handbag held a letter. A sad letter. We understand that some relationship has ended. That seemingly it is her fault and that it hurt. We have also learnt that she finds it hard to articulate her feelings. What she does betrays her real pain and anger, thus revealing a little more of who she is to the reader,

‘Carefully she tore the letter into narrow strips and touched a lighted match to them in the coal grate.’

Somehow, this handbag seemed connected to the letter and to her life. Catherine Anne Porter has painted us a picture of motivation and desire. We now care. Half way down page four (of six) we learn,

‘…She came out of the bathroom to get a cigarette from the package in the purse. The purse was gone. She dressed and made coffee, and sat by the window while she drank it. Certainly the janitress had taken the purse, and certainly it would be impossible to get it back without a great deal of ridiculous excitement. Then let it go. With this decision of her mind, there rose coincidentally in her blood a deep almost murderous anger…’

There are various reasons why she may want her handbag back, but when we find that it has no money in it what has the author achieved? What other motivators are there?

Anyhow, as you expected, she asked the janitress for it back.

‘…”There isn’t any money in it. It was a present, and I don’t want to lose it.” The janitress turned without straightening up and peered at her with hot flickering eyes, a red light reflected from the furnace in them. “What do you mean, your purse?”  “The gold cloth purse you took from the wooden bench in my room,” she said. “I must have it back.” “Before God I never laid eyes on your purse, and that’s the holy truth,” said the janitress. “Oh, well then, keep it,” she said, but in a very bitter voice, “keep it if you want it so much.” And she walked away. She remembered how she had never locked a door in her life, on some principle of rejection in her that made her uncomfortable in the ownership of things, and her paradoxical boast before the warnings of her friends, that she had never lost a penny by theft; and she had been pleased with the bleak humility of this concrete example designed to illustrate and justify a certain fixed, otherwise baseless and general faith which ordered the movements of her life without regard to her will in the matter.’

The narrator was right; the janitress had taken the handbag, for her almost seventeen year old granddaughter. She gave the bag back but felt it belonged, morally, to her granddaughter,

‘…She’s got young men after her maybe will want to marry her. She oughta have nice things. She needs them bad right now. You’re a grown woman you’ve had your chance. You ought to know how it is.’

Then there is a tussle where the narrator gives it to the woman who decides she no longer wants it any more, Porter turns the tables by using the janitress to act affronted as if the narrator was the one who had stolen it from someone who had a greater need. At the end the narrator is alone with her handbag, but it has become a pyrrhic victory,

‘She laid the purse on the table and sat down with the cup of chilled coffee, and thought I was right not to be afraid of any thief but myself, who will end by leaving me nothing.’

There it is then, show don’t tell.

Tracy Thomson

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